The legend of Wayland’s Smithy

Waylands Smithy, prehistoric BritainWayland’s Smithy was my next stop on a visit that included Uffington’s White Horse and hillfort.  The Smithy is a Neolithic tomb – technically a chambered long barrow, similar to the one at West Kennet – and it is located about a mile and a quarter to the west of the ramparts of Uffington Castle, along the route of the ancient Ridgeway.  You can walk there easily from the National Trust White Horse Hill car park, but you cannot drive there; the closest road to it is Knighton Hill, which is narrow and with few places to leave vehicles.

Ridgeway, National TrailDespite being in busy south-east England, this feels an oddly isolated part of the country.  The houses are visible, but out of reach, the sky is big and, on the occasions I’ve visited, there have never been many people about. To make the point, just one horse and its rider passed me on my short trek to get to this legendary prehistoric site.  Actually, it took longer than I thought it would; the Ridgeway became a dusty track and I wondered if Wayland’s Smithy had been concealed by some ancient spell.  Neighbouring woods looked as though they concealed the Green Knight.  Then, off a narrow well-trodden path next to a sweet meadow, I eventually found it.

Wayland’s Smithy seemed a strange place, a piece of ancient man-made design resting in an open grove of graceful beech trees, lit by the same warm sun that gave heat and light to its builders so very long ago. It was deserted, but there was a sensation that people were just hovering in the shadows, watching; and a most curious awareness of long ago – almost at the dawn of man.  If I’d had a companion with me, we would have whispered.

Woods, OxfordshireIn the quite recent past, Wayland’s Smithy was known as Wayland Smith’s cave.  There is an old tale that, if a traveller’s horse lost a shoe on the road, he should bring the horse hither and leave it overnight with a piece of money. Returning at daybreak, he might find the horse shod and the money gone.  This legend of the invisible smith was established by the 18th century and later known to Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, both of whom used it in their writing.  But the association with the mysterious Wayland Smith is far older than that.  The name goes back to the 9th century, at least, when it was referred to as Welandes smithy.

Wayland's Smithy, OxfordshireWeland, as the Anglo-Saxons knew him, was actually a Norse elf, Völundr, a smith of exceptional, supernatural, skill, whose reputation for beautiful weaponry and jewellery was known far and wide. However, the avaricious King Niduth of Sweden wanted to possess all the fruits of Völundr’s labours.  He kidnapped the smith, cruelly ham-strung him to stop him escaping and demanded that he worked solely for Niduth in the royal workshops.  Völundr pretended to go along with this; then he tricked the king’s two young sons into his forge, decapitated them, fashioned exquisite gold goblets from their skulls and stunning jewels from their eyes and teeth.  He presented these baubles to the unsuspecting king and queen, and their daughter, who were all delighted.  As the king was quaffing wine from his beautiful new goblets, and sending search parties out to track down his missing boys, his daughter, the Princess Beahilda, shyly approached Völundr to mend a beautiful ring her father had given her.  Recognising the ring as one he had made for his own lovely wife, the Swan-Princess, Völundr became even angrier than he was already.  He drugged the poor girl, raped her, and flew away on magic wings, taunting Niduth as he went that the King of Sweden’s only male heir now was growing inside Beahilda’s womb – and it was his.  Völundr eventually came to rest on the Berkshire downs, where he made his new home inside an ancient tomb.  Down through the centuries, he created many wondrous things there, including the sword, Excalibur, that the wizard Merlin asked him to fashion.  Völundr – or Wayland – has shod a few horses too since then, of course, and lives there still, in his smithy.

Wayland's SmithyBurial Chamber, Wayland's SmithyWayland's Smithy, prehistoric, OxfordshireWayland’s Smithy is about 185 feet (56.4 metres) long by about 43 feet (13 metres) wide, and was built in two phases – each long before Wayland took up residence.  Phase 1 was constructed  between 3,590 and 3,555 BC.  It was a rectangular stone and timber box, with two split tree trunks at either end and a paved stone floor.  Within a 15 year period, the remains of 14 people – 11 men, 2 women and a child – were placed there.  Their badly smashed bones were uncovered in the 1960s, along with some other artefacts – arrow heads, fragments of pottery and quernstones.

Wayland's Smithy, rear viewWayland's Smithy, prehistoric EnglandLater, the box was covered by a mound of chalk and earth.  Sometime between 3,460 and 3,400 BC, another barrow was built over the top, with a stone chamber at the southern end.  At that time, it is thought the Ridgeway ran past the sealed entrance.  At some point, the tomb was robbed, but bones from 8 remaining bodies were found during excavations in 1919.

I walked back thinking about these people, where they had lived, why they were chosen to be buried – what they’d been like.  In the distance, Uffington Castle loomed; when our distant ancestors built that, the people laid to rest in Wayland’s Smithy had already been dead for two thousand eight hundred years.

Uffington Castle, Ridgeway

41 thoughts on “The legend of Wayland’s Smithy

  1. CherryPie

    I had not heard of this before. It is in a beautiful setting with lovely scenery around. I think I would find it a bit creepy if I was there on my own.

  2. Clare Pooley

    I also remember reading about Wayland in ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’. Wow, Mike! Fabulous! I recognise that sensation of being somewhere really old and ‘special’. We felt that same awe when we went to Arthur’s Stone near Hay-on-Wye. My younger daughter, who was about 4 years old at the time, had been really miserable and bored all day. As soon as we arrived at Arthur’s Stone she cheered up and even danced round the tomb! She has always been very sensitive to atmosphere and also knows when people really like her and when they are just being polite. We knew immediately that we were somewhere very significant. I really must take her to Wayland’s Smithy!

  3. Jenny Woolf

    I have an idea of revisiting the area the next fine day and looking at Sparsholt, where many of my ancestors came from. This will now be on the list! Thank you!

  4. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – that is extraordinary history … and I’d love to visit on that sort of day … gorgeous English scenery. You’ve certainly given us food for thought here … millennia of history – cheers Hilary

  5. quinn

    Time out of mind.
    Very enjoyable writing, Mike. You describe your experience so well, it brought to mind times and places where I’ve had similar feelings.

  6. cleemckenzie

    I’m experiencing walk-envy. All of your pictures made me want to be there. Of course, I’d rather not have a ru-in with that Norse elf, Völundr. He has one vindictive streak! Great post as usual.

  7. Helen Devries

    How you make me regret all the places i did not visit while living in the U.K.!
    An uncanny feeling, in the presence of people who lived so far back that calculation seems impossible.

  8. milliethom

    Love this place.The first time I visited in 1971, it was possible for anyone to go inside the barrow, so we did. I believe it can only be entered with prior consent nowadays (not sure who from, but it probably says on information leaflets available in Tourist Information places etc). I use one of our photos of Wayland’s Smithy on my Twitter page! Lots of great information and old stories in your post, Mike, all quite fascinating and mysterious. Thank you for sharing

      1. milliethom

        Thanks, Mike. It’s a photo from a photo, so not too brilliant. It was taken five or six years ago on yet another visit to Wantage. I didn’t know Nick was photographing me or I’d have done a quick skidaddle.

  9. Amy

    I have lots of books about medieval history and smithys, something that fascinates me, Norah Lofts is a good author who wirtes about this stuff.

  10. Cynthia

    I would have felt the need to whisper, too. They must have been important people in some way to be buried in such a tomb. I wish we could know more about life so long ago.

  11. Osyth

    I won’t bang on again and hog your commentary stream. I’ll just thank you for this post. You capture the sensation of the place beautifully … if I’d been with you, we would have whispered … I think I always have there. It is unworldly. By the way, Oxford Tory is correct in what he calls the area but I’m afraid we always call it ‘The Vale of The District Horse’

  12. Oxford Tory

    I see you were in my part of the country, our beautiful Vale of White Horse! Come back soon. Maybe write a piece about Alfred The Great, he was well known round these parts lol. Cheers for a good read.

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